Utah COVID-19 contact tracing app rejects Apple-Google approach

The state of Utah is one of the first U.S. states to endorse a COVID-19 contact tracing app. The app uses Bluetooth and GPS data and was built by a social media startup and doesn’t use the Apple-Google contact tracing API. Utah’s governor’s office spent $2.75 million for the app and other improvements, and will pay $300,000 per month in maintenance fees.

Utah COVID-19 contact tracing app rejects Apple-Google approach

Kif Leswing for CNBC:

More than 45,000 people have signed up for Utah’s contact tracing app, Healthy Together, since it was released in late April, the app’s developers told CNBC. That represents about 2% of the state’s population… The adoption rate in the state suggests that getting people to download contact tracing apps in the United States may be a challenge as other states consider whether to follow European and Asian countries and release their own apps.

Healthy Together was built by Twenty, a social media start-up that previously built an app that helps young people meet up in person. After the pandemic started, the state of Utah reached out to the company, the founders said. With their staff of about 50 employees, they repurposed their social media-oriented technology for contact tracing in three weeks.

For now, the Healthy Together app is still in testing, and contact tracers cannot use the data being collected. But Twenty chief strategy officer Jared Allgood explains how it will eventually work: “Jeff and Sarah are two individuals in this example who don’t know each other but they both have the app on their phones. And so the both phones are emitting Bluetooth and GPS signals,” Allgood said. “Through that data we can identify whether or not two people have spent some time together.”

Utah’s approach draws a contrast with the decentralized, anonymous systems backed by Apple and Google and several countries in Europe… Privacy and security-oriented technologists are generally concerned about contact tracing apps because they collect data about who people know and have met with. Some worry that the data could be stolen or used by unscrupulous governments for purposes not related to public health, or that the technology could “creep” into a larger surveillance system.

MacDailyNews Take: Twenty’s founders say that the app is totally opt-in and that users can choose to limit permissions such as GPS or Bluetooth on their phones if they don’t want their location to be tracked, which of course, defeats the purpose.

Regardless, no location data is truly anonymized. It can be cross-matched with other publicly-available data to identify and track individuals. The idea of any government requiring cellphone tracking to monitor its citizens’ movements, regardless of the reason, is chilling. — MacDailyNews, April 2, 2020

The possibility for privacy abuse and/or security mistakes with centralized location tracking schemes is the reason why thinking people don’t bother trying to develop, deploy, or use them for contact tracing.

Might these apps help in some cases to get the relatively few people who will use them to seek testing or self-quarantine if/when the alarm goes off? Of course. But, overall, these apps are little more than security blankets for the citizenry to clutch on their way to herd immunity and, for governments that use a centralized system, to track the spread of infections on the way to herd immunity.

More about the myriad issues of Bluetooth COVID-19 contact tracing apps can be found in our Takes here, here and here.

4 Comments

  1. Sooooo…”the Apple-Google uses Bluetooth and GPS to track people’s whereabouts and exposure. Our system doesn’t do that. It only uses the Bluetooth and GPS signals being emitted by the phones to calculate that data.” Oh! I’m so dumb for thinking they did the same thing! 🤦🏻‍♂️🙄
    Also, doesn’t sound like it was the state of Utah who rejected the Apple-Google solution. It sounds like it was the developer, since they already had their own platform. But I could be wrong.

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